Five years ago, lingering over a last glass of wine and aftertaste of delicious Basque cooking, I was savouring the ambience of a little courtyard restaurant tucked under the medieval walls of St. Jean Pied de Port at the foot of the French Pyrenees. Calling for the bill, I jotted a few final notes in a little pocket notebook before returning to my lodgings for the night. It proved to be an unexpected life-changing moment.
The driver of one of the city’s three-wheel auto-rickshaws had proven honest and personable so I offered to hire him for a full day of exploring Old and New Delhi. The next morning Yogesh was at the door, right on time, in his little canvas-covered “tuk-tuk” with its puttering two-stroke engine, and off we went. As our final stop I wanted to wander the famous gardens surrounding Humayun’s Tomb so, after my faithful “rickshaw-wallah” took a picture of me taking a picture, I let him go with thanks. I thought that the thirty-minute stroll back to my lodgings would make the perfect end to a perfect adventure. I was wrong.
At the moment – and that’s an important qualifier – Nova Scotia is said to be the safest place from the COVID-19 coronavirus in North America, along with the neighbouring provinces cooperating as an “Atlantic Bubble.” Some other parts of Canada have spent Thanksgiving weekend locked back down after renewed outbreaks. The public health debacle south of the border in the world’s richest country beggars belief. Yet the Halifax waterfront has been lively during the summer. Most restaurants and pubs are open, albeit with limited occupancy, mandatory masking, physical distancing, and registering patrons for potential contact tracing. Shops, salons, other businesses and places of worship are struggling, but most are staying afloat. Those who can are working from home, and the public and private sector are doing their best to mitigate the economic hardships on the most vulnerable. So what’s making the difference?
The pangolin is a gentle little creature; harmless unless you happen to be an ant. It’s the only mammal covered with scales – picture a pudgy, pointy-nosed otter covered with large fingernails. When threatened it curls into an appealing ball that resembles a large seashell. Its most deadly predator is the human which, unlike other species, doesn’t simply hunt for food, but mindlessly drives any prey it relishes toward extinction. By some reports the pangolin is the most illegally trafficked animal in the world. But, to the satisfaction of those of us who cheer for the underdog, it seems that this mild-mannered little creature may have struck back.
March 1st being the feast of David, patron saint of Wales, puts me in mind of meeting the current Prince of Wales, His Royal Highness Prince Charles, at a cocktail party aboard the Canadian destroyer Gatineau. We were both naval Lieutenants, he serving aboard the Royal Navy frigate Jupiter as Communications Officer and me in one of Her Majesty’s (His Mother’s?) Canadian Submarines with the distinctly un-warlike name of “Rainbow”, after a British cruiser transferred to the Royal Canadian Navy in 1910. Our respective vessels were making port calls to San Diego.
I hadn’t quite turned 15 when somehow I learned that Trans Canada Airlines (now Air Canada) would charter an airliner to organized groups for half-hour flights over Niagara Falls, flying out of nearby Malton airport (we still called it that, though it had been re-named “Toronto International” some months earlier). Being mad about flying I asked my Dad whether we could organize that for the youth group at the church where he was minister. Sure, he said, that wicked twinkle in his eye. Why don’t you do it? From experience I knew that an excuse of just being a kid wasn’t going to cut it. Dad was a born mentor.
A majestic mountain called Kailash towers above the high point of the Tibetan plateau, a three-day drive west from the capital of Lhasa. Until mid-20th Century it had been seen by only a handful of Westerners, but it has always been sacred to millions of Hindus, Buddhists, Jains and Tibetan Bonpo. Today, hundreds visit between June and September, most to attempt what one lyrical author has called “the greatest and hardest of all earthly pilgrimages” – a 52-kilometre “kora” or circumambulation of the mountain at altitudes ranging from 4,600 metres (15,000 feet) to over 5.600 metres (18,500) where the available oxygen is only half that at sea level.
A Turkish friend has pointed out that my June 2019 essay on Istanbul contained a misunderstanding based on a misleading translation. It is now revised.
The last few years have been rough for the 400-odd remaining Atlantic Right Whales; a once-abundant species that’s never recovered from being hunted almost to extinction. A habitat close enough to shore to coincide with fishing zones and ship traffic lanes means that some die a slow death from tangling in fishing gear while others are wounded by ships’ propellers slicing into their backs, sometimes dying from direct blows. Some people may wonder how a species so finely evolved to detect underwater sound can be so vulnerable, but not me. I learned the hard way during a few adrenaline-filled moments on a Cold War submarine patrol.
“Better a diamond with a flaw than a pebble without.” (Analects of Confucius)
Fifty years ago tonight I was a young naval officer joining a bunch of students gathered around the TV in the common room at Pine Hill Divinity Hall (now Atlantic School of Theology) in Halifax. I was living aboard ship at the time so my recently-widowed mother, then a summer student, invited me to join them for the live broadcast of the first attempt to land people on the Moon. Just before midnight we were straining to interpret the grainy image of Neil Armstrong making his way carefully down the ladder of the lunar lander, waiting breathlessly to hear what he might say. Continue reading “Being Human on the Moon”
(Revised, 13 December 2019)
At a busy intersection in the heart of old Istanbul there’s an unremarkable stone pillar tucked between the sidewalk and back wall of the 6th century Basilica Cistern. It could easily be missed by the casual passer-by, but a closer look reveals a small plaque that reads: “This stone pillar is all that remains of a Byzantine triumphal arch from which road distances to all corners of the empire were measured. Date IV Century A.D.” A moment’s reflection for that to seep in must surely fire the imagination and give pause for thought – this barely noticeable stub in what is now an obscure corner of a busy modern city was once the very hub of the most widespread empire that the world had known until then. Sic transit gloria mundi indeed. (*)
The good news from my travel agent was that she could get an excellent price on a home-bound flight from Cairo by booking on Royal Jordanian Airlines to Amman, and then catch its recently-inaugurated service to Tel Aviv where I’d connect with another airline for the trans-Atlantic leg. The bad news, she said, was that it would mean a ten-hour stopover in Amman and transfer between airports. But to me that was pure opportunity. This new service between Jordan and Israel was possible because of a historic peace treaty signed three and a half years earlier, in 1994, meaning that I could get one of the first boarding passes with “Tel Aviv” printed in Arabic; a souvenir of Middle East peacemaking too good to miss. Better yet, Amman is an easy 30 kilometre drive from Mount Nebo where God is said to have shown Moses the “promised land” that his tribes were supposed to conquer. Ten hours would be enough to immerse myself in some historical context for that continuing quarrel over ancestral land which was taking me to Cairo in the first place. Since I’d have to transfer between airports anyway I would rent a car and go tread the legendary footsteps of Moses.
She was unremarkable in appearance, but there was something of steel and fire beneath that soft-spoken shyness. It was apparent that the young soldier holding her hand represented welcome moral support, but not an irreplaceable element in achieving her purpose. Though she would not have recognized it in herself, she had come to the local office of the European Community Monitoring Mission not so much to petition for help as to enlist us as the chosen instrument for her inexorable campaign.
Our Nepali sirdar (expedition team leader and guide) moved quietly from tent to tent, waking us in turn. In the cold pre-dawn darkness we dressed quickly and followed him up to a small plateau above the town of Namche Bazaar, 3,500 metres (11.500 feet) above sea level in Nepal’s Khumbu Valley. There we stood as the sky lightened slowly until, finally, a golden glow illuminated the summit of Mount Everest (Chomolungma in Nepalese), topped with a halo of cloud, jutting coyly above the massive Lhotse-Nuptse mountain wall, 28 kilometres away. After some time utterly absorbed in the moment I turned to thank our Nepali friend but no words came. Choking back unexpected tears, all I could manage was a soundlessly mouthed “thank you”.
Tomorrow night, at 22:31 Atlantic Time, hundreds of people around the world will be taking quiet moments in their own way to mark the twentieth anniversary of that awful moment when Swissair’s Flight 111 from New York to Geneva plunged into the shallow waters of St. Margaret’s Bay, just a few minutes flying time from the city of Halifax. The tragedy was compounded by the terrible knowledge that only one of the 229 bodies, a child, was sufficiently intact to be identifiable visually. Recovering remains of the others, whether floating, entangled in the wreckage or washed ashore, was to be a mammoth and grisly challenge. Those involved in supporting grieving families; recovering and trying to identify body parts; retrieving wreckage; reconstructing bits of the aircraft to determine the cause; cleaning up the shoreline; or simply supporting those who did – they number in the thousands, and all have their own meaningful memories. Here’s three of mine.
I can’t say that I was particularly scared at my first parachute jump – excited for sure, but not scared. There’s a theory that both those emotions are physiologically the same thing and it just depends on how you interpret them. That makes sense to me.
Before the plane takes off you have no way of predicting what it must be like to step outside, half a mile above the ground, and then trust that the nylon line joining your aircraft to the pins keeping your parachute pack closed will tug them out when your falling body reaches the end of it. There’s a strange moment on takeoff when you realize that you will not be landing in the same aircraft, and once it starts climbing with the door open the unreality really kicks in. By the time your instructor tells you to get out on the step, the adrenaline rush, engine roar, howling wind and realization that you are standing outside an airplane in flight come close to sensory overload. Things get surreal as you hear “Have a good jump — GO!”, feel a firm but somehow encouraging thump on you shoulder, and hop backward into empty space. All those good intentions to follow instructions and count out the seconds before the parachute should be opening evaporate, and all that comes out is YEEEEHAW! Continue reading “Leaps of Faith”